Mark Schorer Essay - Critical Essays

Schorer, Mark

Schorer, Mark 1908–1977

An American novelist, editor, and short story writer, Schorer was primarily known as a literary critic. His "Technique as Discovery," published in 1947, became a critical hallmark for its claim that fiction deserved the close scrutiny, attention, and consideration that was accorded poetry by the New Critics. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)

Apart from the appeal of the stories themselves, I think that "Pieces of Life" could serve as a study in the evolution of technique and sensibility in American fiction. One of our better literary critics until his death …, Mark Schorer wrote, if memory serves me right, an essay titled "Technique as Discovery." Now, in these 10 stories, he has demonstrated his thesis: as the technique of the short story changed, so did its range and quality of awareness. You can see this progress from one story to the next across a 30-year span.

The first piece, copyrighted in 1946, is nothing more than a crude frame for an ironic parallel between a wife's telling her husband an anecdote about a blind man and her own blindness to her husband's flagrant infidelity. The second story is a gentle hint at ambivalence in black-white relationships, expressed through the medium of a Freudian slip. As you can see, readers of short stories—and Mr. Schorer's appeared in the best magazines—were once content with relatively little. The third story represents no advance at all. It is a predictable set piece about a repressed couple whose teen-age son defends a "vulgar" but "warm" family who have intruded on their secluded stretch of beach.

So far, these stories are nothing to write home about, and barely enough to write in a magazine about. We seem to be still in the 40's, before all hell broke loose. Then there is a jump of seven years in the copyright dates and the fourth story shows a conspicuous advance: this one, too, is about a husband's infidelity, but now he and his wife are talking about it. What's more, their conversation takes place against a contrapuntal motif of a little girl practicing the piano next door. The bareness of the subject is embellished by technique. The critic in Mr. Schorer has come to the aid of the storyteller.

There is another jump of seven years in the copyright dates, and although I have no way of verifying this—there are six dates and 10 stories—I am inclined to believe that the next story represents another forward leap, this time into the 60's. Its theme is loneliness—not simply circumstantial loneliness, but immanent, essential loneliness—and the story finds no answer for the question that it asks. The answer lies in the drama of the asking. The short story has learned to express suffering as grace.

Now, in "Pieces of Life," we come to the ambiguity of awakening sexuality, the terrific surprise of passion, the unsettling idea that sex may be its own reward. In the subsequent story, Mr. Schorer ventures into the darker regions of human impulse, into what has since become the familiar landscape of contemporary fiction….

In the last three stories, everything is altered: manner, mood, language, structure. Mr. Schorer's people go inside themselves, instead of outside. His language is probing rather than defining, his rhythms rise almost in crescendoes but stop short. His people come up against the paralyzing realization that there is no necessary forward movement in events or in themselves. They are like amnesiacs, forced to begin at the beginning, but without knowing the process.

In one of these last stories, an extraordinarily ugly and ornate lamp becomes a metaphor for everything in Italy that disquiets a visiting American couple. The lamp is so strange, so foreign, that it forces them to see Italy for the first time, to experience themselves incongruously posed against this unfamiliar backdrop. The last piece in "Pieces of Life" is pure choreography, a fugal meditation on youth and age, permanence and change. (p. 12)

Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 2, 1977.

[Pieces of Life is a] posthumous collection of stories, interlaced with autobiographical fragments that are mostly concerned with Schorer's early years. Story and autobiography don't treat the same experiences or even the same themes, but the volume is harmonized by the single sensibility pervading everywhere. As Schorer hoped, there is something appealing about "the slightly staggering dissonance of a real life beating beneath the surface of brighter, created lives." The autobiographical sketches richly evoke small-town life in the Midwest in the early years of the century. The stories are sensitive and accomplished, well-observed and muted in tonality. Notable for their quality of feeling, not for their range and variety, they turn on moments of quiet self-recognition. Obviously Schorer the critic eclipses Schorer the writer of fiction. Yet what an appropriate memorial volume this is: the stories and autobiographical fragments are touchingly and unmistakably "pieces of life," and of a great life at that. (p. 2263)

Keith Cushman, in Library Journal (reprinted from the November 1, 1977, issue of Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1977 by Xerox Corporation), November 1, 1977.